More companies are expected to set up operations along the trade route, which passes through dangerous areas, and the PLA has shown little inclination to take up the extra duty
Li Xiaopeng’s career as a security specialist includes stints in the police force and behind the scenes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now his sights are set on much wider horizons.
Li, chairman of Beijing-based private security contractor DeWe Group, is looking to help his company cash in on the vast security needs that could be generated by the new Silk Road, China’s big plan to link the country through trade and infrastructure to the rest of the world.
So far Beijing has shown little inclination to deploy the People’s Liberation Army to fortify projects along the proposed routes, which wind through some of the world’s most remote and dangerous territories.
That leaves the gates open in part to private players like DeWe, one of a growing army of security providers jostling to cater to a growing Chinese corporate market with offshore energy, mining and infrastructure projects. Other big names in the game are China Security and Protection Group and Huaxin Zhongan Group.
“The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is a big project that will greatly boost our business in the long run,” Li said.
DeWe, established in 2011, has grown to more than 8,000 employees in 37 countries. Many of its managers are retired soldiers from China’s special forces, with experience in hostile environments from Iraq to Afghanistan, according to the company.
As China expands its presence abroad, it also becomes more exposed to threats such as armed attacks and kidnappings. This will become even more so as Beijing speeds up construction in 65 countries along the ancient Silk Road in Eurasia and a maritime route through Southeast Asia to Africa.
About 56 per cent of China’s non-financial overseas investments in the 65 Silk Road countries in the past three years was in high-risk places, such as Syria, Turkey and Pakistan, according to a joint report by DeWe and the Phoenix Global Affairs Unit, an institute affiliated with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television.
Those risks were brought home by the outbreak of civil war in Libya in 2011, when Beijing had to abandon its massive investments – mainly in oilfields – in the country and evacuate thousands of Chinese citizens.
In addition, “with China’s active participation in global anti-terrorism and its rise in international influence, its agencies, corporations and citizens have gradually become targets of terrorist attacks”, the report warned.
Three staff were wounded when the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan was hit by a car bomb in August, and Chinese construction workers in places like Pakistan are also frequent targets for terrorists or kidnappers.
“China has become much stronger and it needs to protect its own interest overseas,” Chen Fengying, a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said. “The safety of workers is one of major risks when implementing the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.”
Sun Xiansheng, a former executive of China National Petroleum Corp in Africa, said the Chinese government should help security firms establish operations overseas, including authorising personnel to carry or use weapons. Sun also knows just how dangerous conditions can get offshore – he was in charge of a team to rescue nine Chinese oil workers kidnapped in Sudan in October 2008. Five Chinese died in the incident.
Li agreed that private security firms could complement government operations. “We can handle those situations that are too inconvenient for the government or things that it does not have the energy to do,” he said.
“We are planning a new service – security camps for Chinese in war-torn countries that can take shelling or even a tank attack.”
DeWe’s clients include the Chinese embassies in Kenya and Madagascar. Apart from safeguarding consulates, the company protects visiting Chinese leaders, secures major Chinese events, and even transports criminals.
Although most of its jobs are for state firms such as Sinopec, China Communications Construction Group and China Three Gorges Corp, DeWe is thinking big.
“We are trying hard and hoping that we can catch up with global players eventually,” Li said.